Pensions and Principles

August 12, 1994

County Councilwoman Maureen Lamb is sponsoring legislation to let 17 county positions mistakenly included in a generous but under-funded pension plan stay there. She says it's a question of fairness to employees. She is partly right.

Throughout the controversy over the pension plan for appointed and elected officials, efforts have been made to go after those who benefited under the 1989 law that increased benefits and lowered the retirement age. Last winter even Mrs. Lamb sponsored an unsuccessful bill that would have required these people to pay back their benefits with interest. We opposed that bill because, absurd as the 1989 law was, those who were vested under it have a right to those benefits.

In the case of the 17 employees, they likewise have a right to whatever benefits they have already accrued. That they were erroneously included in the plan is not their fault. Anger about this pension mess should not be transformed into punishment directed at them. To make them pay back pension benefits which they earned in good faith (County Attorney Judson P. Garrett has mentioned that as an option) is morally indefensible -- and probably legally indefensible, as well. Mrs. Lamb's bill prohibiting the county from demanding repayment is fair and should be passed.

Whether a second Lamb bill should be passed allowing the 17 employees to stay in the plan even though they don't belong there (the legislation itself concedes their inclusion is a "long-standing administrative error") is a different matter. No matter what the council decides, this issue probably will end up before a judge. From an economic standpoint, it may make more sense for the county to leave the workers in the plan than to go to court.

But the county has to think about principle as well as money here. Taxpayers are angry about this pension plan. They perceive it as tangible evidence of government unreasonably rewarding its own at their expense, as well as of government mismanagement. By transferring the 17 employees into the regular employee pension plan, the county would show taxpayers it is concerned about being fair to them, too. If it isn't willing to move these people, then at least the county should rule that any replacements in these 17 positions will be part of the regular pension plan.

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